Hitchcock-a-thon: To Catch a Thief (1955)

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After a long period of dark and serious films, Hitchcock tried his hand a something fun and frothy for the first time since Mr. and Mrs. Smith nearly fifteen years earlier. But unlike that last attempt, To Catch A Thief is very enjoyable.

Retired cat burglar John “The Cat” Robie (Cary Grant) is framed by new wave of jewellery robberies. On the run from the ever-inept police, he escapes to safety with the aid of his old flame Danielle (Brigitte Auber) and sets out to prove his innocence.

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Cary Grant gets stuck with the bus weirdo

In order to catch this new cat burglar red-handed, Robie becomes close to wealthy widow Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Francie (Grace Kelly). While initially ice cold towards him, Francie’s attraction to Robie swells after she learns of his devious and thrilling old ways. But when Mrs. Stevens’ diamonds vanish in the night, it’s no longer fun and games in Francie’s eyes.

The driving force of To Catch A Thief comes from the pairing of two dream leads: Cary Grant and Grace Kelly (this proved to be her final Hitchcock film as she gave up acting due to her marriage to Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1956). The chemistry between them is electric and every line of the innuendo-crammed dialogue between them is marvelously corny.

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“You want a leg or a breast?” Kelly ask, presenting him with a picnic. “You make the choice,” replies Grant unblinkingly. Bond would be proud.

While the film can’t be called a “comedy”, strictly speaking, it’s an enjoyable romp around gorgeous French scenery that serves as a great little call-back to some of the lighter films of Hitchcock’s late British years.

The central “who is the imposter cat burglar” mystery plays out in a fairly boring fashion without any great twists and turns, despite all the suave turtlenecks Cary Grant can squeeze into. But when the leads are this fun and the dialogue is this flirty, who cares?

“I have a feeling that tonight you’re going to see one of the Riviera’s most fascinating sights,” promises Kelly. Then, after a pause, “I was talking about the fireworks”.  “I never doubted it,” reassures Grant. Sure, mate. Sure.

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Hitchcock-a-thon: Notorious (1946)

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In a way it’s hard to say what’s so good about Notorious because it’s kinda everything. The film offers so much in terms of pure drama. Sexual jealousy, espionage, exploitation, romance, mistrust, fear…it’s a powerhouse of a movie.

The daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), is recruited by the American government to infiltrate an organization of Nazis who escaped to Rio after the War. While awaiting her orders she falls in love with fellow agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant). But when she’s ordered to seduce a Nazi suspect, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), her life becomes an emotional turmoil as she pretends to love one man while really loving another.

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“Don’t sulk. Yours is bigger.”

Both Grant and Bergman give some of the strongest performances of their careers (no mean feat given their incredible outputs) as we watch their characters try to balance their duty with their true feelings.

But, in acting terms, the film’s secret linchpin is Claude Rains, who delivers a wonderfully understated performance. Despite his political immorality and suspiciously close relationship with his domineering mother (a superb performance by Leopoldine Konstantin) his love for Alicia is genuine. It’s hard not to pity him.

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Guys, I’m right here

As for camerawork, Hitchcock gives some of his most elegant cinematography and editing to date, most famously in the kissing scene. The Hays Code – Hollywood’s chief censor – forbade a kiss lasting longer than three seconds, and so Bergman and Grant break away from each others lips every few seconds to speak softly to each other as the gliding camera follows them. It’s one of the most intimate moments in Hitchcock’s canon and, proving how arbitrary censorship regulations can be, it’s profoundly more erotic than if they had held a single kiss for the two and a half minute shot.

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Grant and Bergman regret playing with glue

Without spoiling anything, the film’s final scene is absolutely superb. There’s no daring chase, or scuffle atop a landmark but the emotional drama of the scene make it one of Hitchcock’s tensest climaxes.

Notorious was met with critical acclaim, but perhaps the best review came from Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia: “What a perfect film!” She ain’t wrong. It’s the most tightly constructed film in what was a phenomenal decade for Hitchcock. Unmissable.

Hitchcock-a-thon: The Manxman (1929)

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Another silent Hitchcock, another love triangle. Once again starring Carl Brisson. Hitchcock later dismissed it as “a very banal picture.” I’m not going to call him wrong about his own movie but…he’s wrong. In my opinion, it’s actually one of his strongest films from the silent era.

Set in a small village on the Isle of Man, Kate (Anny Ondra) promises her love to a chipper fisherman called Pete (Brisson) shortly before he leaves for Africa to make his fortune. While he’s gone he asks his best friend Philip (Malcolm Keen) to take care of her. But a forbidden love starts to blossom and when Pete returns to ask Kate for her hand in marriage, it’s only a matter of time before it all blows up in their faces.

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Until then, she has something else in her face

In many ways, The Manxman feels like a cross between two Hitchcock films: the love triangle story from The Ring mixed with the theme of regretting promises from The Pleasure Garden. But The Manxman is better than both of them.

While, in terms of cinematography, The Ring is still Hitchcock’s greatest ’20s achievement – the characters and story are stronger here. In The Ring the audience were clearly intended to sympathise with ‘One-Round’ Jack; Bob Corby was his obstacle to overcome and Mabel was his prize to be won.

But the lead characters in The Manxman are more nuanced than that. All three of them are likeable and we don’t want anyone to come away hurt, even though it’s almost unavoidable. Ondra is enthralling as Kate, making it impossible not to side with her on any decision she makes. Keen gives an entirely convincing portrayal of a man falling in love despite himself and poor old Pete is so naïve and trusting that he can’t see what’s happening right under his nose.

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Like…RIGHT under his damn nose

The film ends on a beautifully melancholic note and it’s hard to know exactly how we’re meant to feel. As well as these gripping character dynamics we’re also treated to some gorgeous craggy scenery and some niffy love-triangle imagery. My personal favourite is the opening shot of the three-legged Isle of Man flag, setting the location but also introducing the thematic symbolism.

The Manxman is an emotionally engaging film. Compelling, suspenseful and a fitting swansong for Hitchcock’s silent classics.

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Farewell

 

Hitchcock-a-thon: Easy Virtue (1928)

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One of Britain’s greatest directors takes on a drama by one of Britain’s greatest playwrights. It should be a recipe for success. How is it the completed film is so…tedious? Let’s back up a bit. Easy Virtue is a loose adaptation of a 1924 Noël Coward play concerned with a classic Hitchcock theme – hypocritical, self-righteous society. We’re in Downhill territory again, folks.

We begin in a courtroom detailing the divorce of our heroine Larita (Isabel Jeans) from her abusive husband and Alan Rickman doppelganger Mr. Filton (Franklin Dyall).

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I can’t be the only one who sees this

Accusations of infidelity are brought against her and the jury buys into it. Once the case is over she flees to the south of France to escape the scandal. There she meets John (played by our old friend Robin Irvine), a rich young man who soon falls for her in a whirlwind romance. They marry, and head back to England to meet John’s dreadfully snobbish family. It’s only a matter of time until her marriage from the past threatens her reputation in the present.

The film has serious pacing issues. After the initial set-up in the courtroom, there’s only a few moments of interest for the next hour or so; such as an inspired transition from France to England represented by cutting from a poodle to a bulldog or an oddly touching scene where we learn about John and Larita’s marriage proposal through the comical gawks of an eavesdropping switchboard operator.

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“Oh no he DIDN’T!”

Things pick in the last twenty minutes as Larita finally snaps and refuses to take anyone else’s shit. Jeans transforms the character into a firecracker, spitting out glorious put-downs to those who cause her offense.

“In our world we do not understand this code of easy virtue,” announces her haughty Mother-in-Law. “In your world you understand very little of anything, Mrs. Whittaker,” Larita responds. Zing!

“Have you had as many lovers as they say?”  “Of course not. Hardly any of them actually loved me.” Zing zing!

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Smack down, mothafucka

This final act houses the Coward-esque witticisms so absent from the rest of the film. It also ends on a sombre note which serves as a sympathetic and thought-provoking commentary on the 1920s equivalent to slut-shaming. But it’s too little too late. We have to sit through sixty minutes of very little happening before we get to anything interesting. The final result is a film that feels much longer than it actually is. Never a good sign.